01 July 2009

The Cavebirds of Chontal…(Cueva de los Tayos, NW Ecuador): June 22, 2009

This red letter day saw me travelling to a deep, dark ravine close to the tiny Andean town of Chontal in NW Ecuador. My aim: to get close-up looks at a true avian oddity, the unique Oilbird (see photos). So named as in some countries (although strangely undocumented for here in Ecuador), humans have in the past harvested the young birds for their high oil content, (young birds bring a whole new meaning to word “fatty”, as they routinely carry an enormous amount of weight, often weighing half again as much as an adult). That is not all that is strange about this bird though, as their regular haunts are caves and deep, dark gullies in the rainforest. As they inhabit such shady environments, they are also one of the few birds that can navigate by echolocation, much in the same way that bats do at night, (there are few other birds that do this at all, although some tiny swifts, known as swiftlets, that inhabit dark caves in Asia can also do this). Last but not least, they are also the only bird on Earth that forages for fruit at night. The bird is so odd and different from anything else, that the species occupies its own monotypic family (i.e. it is a one species family).

To see the bird was a bit of an ordeal to say the least, but one hell of an adventure and I would recommend it to all. After a several hour drive from Tandayapa we arrived at a dusty farm track, where Hugo Morales, the owner of the “finca” soon turned up in his tractor (see photo), our necessary mode of transport for getting to the oilbirds. That was however, not the end of this particular adventure, as the sight of a series of rickety, wet bamboo ladders (see photos) soon greeted me, leading down into a dank, deep gorge. It was at that point I realized I had failed to notice the bright orange safety harnesses that had been loaded on the tractor with me earlier, (bizarrely splashed with the words “British Airways” across them!) I clipped into the harness and descended the first ladder without incident, and thought this would make the next one a piece of cake. However, the next ladder had a slightly unnerving angle to it, and had the added bonus (!) of being right alongside a small waterfall so that when I climbed down I received a regular dose of cold water from the Andes splashing down my left arm. Finally I stood in the deep shadows at the bottom of the ladder and my eyes soon picked up the huge brown shapes of Oilbirds flapping off the side of the cliff beside me, followed by a truly ungodly racket they made when they disturbed one another. This “greasy” bird is certainly not going to be winning any song contests! Once the birds settled down I realized right alongside in a small dark hollow in the cave wall was an adult nestled with a young bird on a small dark ledge (see photo), barely visible to me just feet away. I then set about photographing them in some of the most challenging conditions I had met to date. I am fond of the quirky in the birdworld and this was right up there at the top of the strange category, a huge, nocturnal, fruit-eating bird that dwells in dark caverns, and navigates by echolocation. That is the appeal of the oilbird, an avian oddity of note!

1 comment:

Jana said...

Very interesting post. Thanks for going to great lengths to get the photos.